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Software Robots Are Transforming Old Guard Industries

Mon, 05/23/2016 - 11:55

Everyone’s talking about robots and automation. Do you imagine having a “Rosie” cleaning your home, or the next industrial revolution of automation putting millions out of work? Neither is quite reality, but there is a highly valuable virtual workforce of “software robots” working in today’s offices. They aren’t rolling around like BB-8 delivering the mail, but they are putting the “human” back into a lot of jobs, saving companies money and making them more competitive.

Software robots mimic humans, but live in the cloud or in the data center. They are the ethereal versions of their machine cousins – following business rules to execute processes within and across systems. Their people managers can configure software robots to drive any application – without code. And unlike traditional computer software, they teach the machines how to complete tasks. Any rules-based procedures – administrative, repetitive processes – are fitting work for a virtual workforce of software robots.

Surprisingly, the use of software robots is growing fastest not in slick tech companies but in old-guard industries like financial services and insurance, where robotic process automation (RPA) can help them be more competitive by taking over slow and laborious back office operations and supporting digital transformations and mobile applications, allowing human employees to have a more significant impact on customer experience and loyalty.

These early adopters of automation and software robots have a lot in common: large customer bases they want to protect, complex product portfolios, and a history of burdensome regulatory environments. They are also under immense pressure from new market entrants: agile startups that aren’t saddled by legacy systems to slow them down.

Back-office operations for these companies are ripe opportunities for software robots. They can quickly realize the benefits of RPA in back office transactions like insurance claims, invoice processing, and others where high volumes of transactions can be processed faster without human error, increasing speed and accuracy. Take for example The Co-operative Bank, a Blue Prism customer that deployed a virtual workforce of software robots to manage its excess queue procedure. Previously, eleven individuals worked eight hours per day to manually process 2,500 high-risk accounts each day. With RPA implemented, nine of these team members have taken on proactive account management positions – engaging with customers to discuss account issues before they arise.

Perhaps most significantly to IT, there is no need to abandon or add layers to legacy platforms. This last bit is important: banks and insurers have hundreds of legacy (and often proprietary) systems they don’t want to replace, nor should they. The right software robots are built to be non-invasive and don’t require customization of existing IT systems.

But efficiency is only one driving force for companies today: 74 percent of insurance companies surveyed by Forrester in North America, for example, said improving the experience of their customers is their number one initiative in the next 12 months. With that in mind, we’re beginning to see companies making more sophisticated decisions about what business functions are automated: while insurance providers can use software robots to process insurance claims behind the scenes without human intervention, consumers expect to have a real person answer the phone when they call a hotline. Automating straightforward tasks that are done the same way every time allows humans to handle the jobs that require improvising in a way that robots can’t handle.

The next wave of massive software robot adoption will happen in the healthcare industry, where driving down costs and improving patient experiences and care are paramount. Like in other old-guard industries, healthcare is burdened by legacy systems, complicated regulatory environments, and huge pressure to drive down costs. The efficiencies to be gained without adding IT burdens is tremendous. Alsbridge, a global sourcing, benchmarking, and advisory firm, recently predicted that RPA in claims processing alone could save the healthcare industry more than $1 billion. But imagine the possibilities in healthcare – from the back-office administration (claims processing, patient record reconciliation, pharmacy stock controls) to customer service improvements (self-service check-ins, appointment scheduling). Who can imagine a better place than a hospital to take out unnecessary burdens of red tape and enable people to focus on people?

Technology has always changed the way we do business, and that trend isn’t slowing down any time soon. The opportunity before us is to use automation smartly, in a way that allows us to be more human in our jobs. We have emotional and intellectual intelligence that software robots can’t replicate or automate, so let’s put it to better use.

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The Biotech Roundup: Immunotherapy Ups And Downs, Gene Deals & More

Fri, 05/20/2016 - 07:30

A quick housekeeping note: Starting this week, we are combining our East Coast and West Coast biotech roundups into a single weekly post that will also include highlights from our other cities and regions, including Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Xconomy’s latest bureau, Indiana. As with our bygone coastal roundups, this new national roundup is not meant to be all-inclusive, but more a short curated tour of Xconomy’s coverage and the life-science buzz of the most recent seven days. As usual, we welcome your feedback.

This week, the high-profile fields of cancer diagnostics and immunotherapy were in the spotlight for legal, regulatory, and clinical reasons. Theranos continued its slow-motion implosion, correcting two years of blood-test results, while CEO Elizabeth Holmes searched for a new assistant. (Sorry, we won’t be applying this time.)

Speaking of buzz, the U.S. Senate approved a $1.1 billion emergency bill to fight the spread of mosquito-borne Zika virus, which has sent drug makers and others scrambling for solutions. But a fight looms with the House, which passed a smaller bill earlier this year.

There were developments in gene therapy and gene editing. On the deal front, Celgene was in action, and Pfizer wrapped up a multi-billion-dollar buyout. And the American Civil Liberties Union, instrumental in the historic fight to invalidate gene patents, is mixing it up again with old nemesis Myriad Genetics. From coast to coast, from border to border, it’s roundup time. Let’s kick it off with the week’s immunotherapy news.

—Aduro Biotech (NASDAQ: ADRO) of Berkeley, CA, reported bad news about its combination immunotherapy treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer. In a Phase 2 trial, patients taking the treatment, based in part on Aduro’s engineered Listeria bacteria, did not fare as well as patients who were on chemotherapy.

—The FDA approved a new immunotherapy for advanced bladder cancer, marking the fourth so-called checkpoint inhibitor to reach the market. The drug atezolizumab (Tecentriq) was developed by Roche’s Genentech division and will cost $12,500 a month, roughly the same as other checkpoint inhibitors.

—Moving on to gene therapy, Cambridge, MA-based Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) formed a wide-ranging alliance with two of the field’s pioneers at the University of Pennsylvania, James Wilson and Jean Bennett. Biogen will lean on Wilson and Bennett to develop seven gene therapy programs for a variety of diseases and to gain access to next-generation technology for future gene therapies.

—In other gene therapy news, Spark Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ONCE) provided the first clinical data in humans for its hemophilia B treatment—early yet promising results that bumped Spark’s shares up about 13 percent. Several companies are developing a gene therapy for hemophilia, and a few of them have begun clinical testing over the past year.

—The world might not be ready for CRISPR! The Musical (or is it….?), but the headline-making gene editing technology continued to attract deals. Caribou Biosciences of Berkeley, CA, raised a $30 million Series B round. South San Francisco, CA-based Agenovir, which aims to use CRISPR to wipe out persistent viral infections, raised a $10.6 million Series A round. (Summit, NJ-based Celgene is an investor.) And Cambridge-based Editas Medicine (NASDAQ: EDIT) received $5 million from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, no stranger to drug development and lucrative returns, to develop a gene editing therapy for cystic fibrosis.

—Known in large part for its multiple myeloma franchise, Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) has also been building an immuno-oncology portfolio. On that front, it revamped its partnership with Cambridge-based Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO) this week; Xconomy spoke with Agios CEO David Schenkein about the deal and its $200 million upfront payment.

—On behalf of four people who ordered genetic tests, the ACLU has filed a complaint with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department against Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ: MYGN) of Salt Lake City. The customers said Myriad did not initially provide them the full extent of their genetic information; according to reports, Myriad did so only after the ACLU said it would take the case public. A Myriad statement said the complaint lacked merit.

—New York-based Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) spent some of the cash once ticketed for the failed Allergan merger, buying Anacor Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANAC) of Palo Alto, CA, for $5.2 billion, or $99.25 per share. Anacor has an experimental drug for eczema that could win FDA approval early next year. The nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was one of the deal’s big beneficiaries, as Bloomberg reported.

—Merck has closed down the Lebanon, NH-based headquarters of GlycoFi, a startup from Dartmouth College that Merck bought for $400 million in 2006. Tillman Gerngross, a GlycoFi co-founder and the CEO of Adimab, told Xconomy he’d be interested in buying the company back if it were available.

—Cambridge-based Foundation Medicine (NASDAQ: FMI) was awarded a U.S. patent for its tumor profiling technology, and then immediately sued rival diagnostic firm Guardant Health for alleged infringement, seeking financial compensation. Guardant believes the suit is without merit.

—French microbiome drug developer Enterome announced plans to open a U.S. post in Cambridge’s Kendall Square, joining a niche inhabited by other local microbiome startups like Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB) and Vedanta Biosciences.

—Finally, congratulations to this year’s recipients of the National Medals of Science, Technology, and Innovation.

Xconomy Deputy Biotech Editor Ben Fidler contributed to this report.

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Agenda for Robo Madness West: PARC, iRobot, Fetch & More

Thu, 05/19/2016 - 12:53

We’re a little over a month away from our fifth annual Bay Area robotics conference. This year’s Robo Madness West has a new spin: it’s happening as part of the 2016 Sensors Expo & Conference at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA, on the afternoon of June 22.

Here’s the agenda for the conference. We’re pleased to bring you interactive sessions on robot design, drones and navigation, and human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence. There will also be talks on connected-home robots and social robotics, plus special demos of a stair-climbing bot and a healthcare robot that interacts with patients.

We’ll also be giving away three Roombas, courtesy of iRobot, to lucky winners of our raffle drawing. But you have to register and be there to win.

Just a few highlights from the program:

—Shasta Ventures’ Rob Coneybeer will moderate a discussion on new horizons in robotics with Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics (logistics), and Rosanna Myers, CEO of Carbon Robotics (robot arm platform).

Chris Jones, VP of Technology at iRobot, will talk about the role of consumer robots in the connected home of the future.

—Robot design has become as critical to success as finding the right business model. We’ll have an expert discussion of design issues with Adrian Canoso from Savioke, Jeremy Conrad from Lemnos Labs, Paul Birkmeyer from Dishcraft Robotics, and Valery Komissarova from Grishin Robotics.

—Transcend Robotics CEO Phil Walker will show his company’s stair-climbing robot.

Rob McHenry, VP of Public Sector Operations for PARC, will join a discussion on A.I. and human-machine interaction and collaboration. He’s a former DARPA program manager and an expert in sensors, unmanned and autonomous vehicles, and energy technology.

And there’s much, much more. We’ll highlight some of the other sessions and speakers in the weeks to come. Meantime, you can still grab a ticket here. Hope you can all make it on June 22.

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As Teradata Moves into Cloud, R&D Lab Steps into Light in San Diego

Wed, 05/18/2016 - 03:22

When Oliver Ratzesberger joined Teradata (NYSE: TDC) in 2013, the global computing giant just outside of Dayton, OH, was known for its high-end technology in data warehousing and big data analytics.

At that time, Teradata sold its high-performance systems, which consolidate data from different sources, for millions of dollars to many of the biggest companies in financial services, healthcare, insurance, retail, and manufacturing.

But Teradata’s continued focus on its legacy business, with its on-premises systems and license-based software, was wearing thin, and the company’s target market has been evaporating. By some accounts, over half of the companies on the Fortune 500 list of biggest U.S. companies in 2000 have gone bankrupt, been acquired, dropped off the list, or ceased to exist.

For Teradata, the bottom fell out roughly a year ago, when the company’s first-quarter financial results badly missed Wall Street expectations. Teradata shares have plunged by roughly 38 percent since then.

Now Teradata is undergoing a transformation that has Ratzesberger playing a key role as the president of Teradata Labs, the company’s engineering R&D center in suburban San Diego.

In a recent interview at his office in Rancho Bernardo, where Teradata has about 1,000 employees, the Austrian-born Ratzesberger said he has been overseeing a broad effort to integrate platforms, unify data, develop more innovative analytics, and to adapt and support open-source initiatives like Presto and Hadoop.

“We are heading full-steam into the cloud,” Ratzesberger said, explaining that longstanding technical limitations in what he called “the interconnect” that physically links online networks had previously precluded Teradata from moving its massively parallel processing (MPP) technology into the cloud.

“The moment you slice [data] into 1,000 pieces, the whole network is only as fast as the slowest piece,” Ratzesberger explained. But recent innovations in the most commonly used supercomputer interconnect (InfiniBand and Ethernet) have radically improved bandwidth and reduced latency—and enabled Teradata to load its technology on Amazon Web Services earlier this year for the first time.

“This has been in the making for years, but there are … Next Page »

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Studies Tout Massachusetts Tech Scene, But Talent Issues Loom

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 15:27

Several days after one study ranked Boston as the U.S. city best positioned to capitalize on the transition to a digital economy, a new report bolsters Massachusetts’s tech credentials—but with some important caveats that could hinder the Bay State’s growth.

Last week, a report titled “Innovation That Matters” drew national attention with its somewhat surprising conclusion that Boston—not the San Francisco Bay Area—has the most complete set of ingredients to lead in the tech-focused economy. The report examined 25 cities’ talent, available capital, industry specialization, density of startups and city residents, connections between startups and other key stakeholders, and culture. The report was produced by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation; Free Enterprise, a publication produced by the chamber; and 1776, a startup incubator and seed fund based in Washington, DC.

The Bay Area came in second in the report’s rankings, followed by Denver, the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, San Diego, and Austin, TX. New York was 10th.

“While the San Francisco Bay Area is the clear leader in total startup activity, its lack of a cohesive community and declining quality of life for residents helped move Boston to the top spot,” the report said. “Denver and Raleigh-Durham were surprise stars: They have fewer startups than larger cities like New York and Los Angeles, but stronger ties between the startups and institutions in the community. San Diego performed well thanks to its strong talent and capital base, dense community, and growing specializations in health and IT.”

Massachusetts fares well in comparison with other states, in a different study released Tuesday by the Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC). The trade group’s annual State of the Technology Economy report shows the state ranks first for concentration of tech jobs, echoing the Boston area’s top ranking for startup density in the Innovation That Matters report. Massachusetts is also tops in tech manufacturing, second in tech services concentration, and fourth in the number of tech jobs and tech firms added in 2015, according to MassTLC’s study. Those stats could get a boost with the relocation of GE’s corporate headquarters to Boston.

But both reports also point out weaknesses in Massachusetts’s high-tech workforce. In the Innovation That Matters study, Boston got high marks for the percentage of educated residents and its influx of international residents, but it ranked much lower on measurements of its citizens’ tech skills and in efforts to attract people from other U.S. cities.

Women and minorities are underrepresented in tech firms nationwide, and that problem plagues Massachusetts as well, the MassTLC report shows. Minorities hold 28 percent of the state’s computer and mathematical jobs, including just 5 percent held by Latinos and 3 percent by African-Americans. Women hold just 23.5 percent of the tech jobs and only 12 percent of the board seats at tech companies. Although Massachusetts fares better than some peer states in several diversity metrics, its overall rate of diversity growth in tech jobs lags the national average, according to MassTLC stats.

The state will need to solve these issues if it wants to meet its goals for tech job growth. In 2010, MassTLC set a goal of adding 100,000 net new high-tech jobs by 2020. Five years in, the state had only met a third of its goal, adding around 34,000 tech jobs in that period. MassTLC blamed a talent crunch that it said makes it difficult to fill the more than 123,000 tech job openings posted in the state last year.

“Our region has a responsibility to take a leadership position in training and retaining a workforce with 21st century skills, especially among women and underserved minorities, in order to meet the tech community’s critical need for talent,” MassTLC president and CEO Tom Hopcroft said in a prepared statement. “Furthermore, we must continue to tell our many success stories and boast of our state’s numerous competitive advantages. That’s how GE was convinced to move here, and that is what is needed in order to attract and retain the most talented innovators if we are to expect more companies to start, stay, and relocate to Massachusetts and put down deep roots.”

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Learn These Tech Skills & Get a Raise, PayScale Report Says

Tue, 05/17/2016 - 04:00

Want to make a few extra (thousand) bucks? For software developers, it’s possible if you add a few trending programming languages to your resume, according to Seattle-based PayScale, a crowdsourcing and data analytics company that seeks out and provides salary information.

Developers and programmers who learn the Go or Scala computer programming languages will make 22.4 percent and 21.8 percent more money, respectively, than developers, engineers, and system administrators who haven’t, according to data collected and analyzed by PayScale. Based on a median salary of $72,600, that would mean an extra $16,300 for learning Go or $15,800 more for Scala, according to the report released this morning.

Those languages are considered emerging skills that have been in high demand during the last five years, the company says in its report. For people working in computing and engineering fields, learning a variety of other specialized skills helps earn pay raises, including natural language processing (17.1 percent), machine learning (12.5 percent), and algorithm development (17.8 percent).

The study analyzed data from a plethora of industries, including healthcare, law, and education, among others. In addition to providing suggested skills to gain in order to boost your salary or earn a promotion, PayScale also analyzed skills recent grads may be lacking. Writing proficiency and public speaking were the two largest weaknesses among recent grads, according to the company.

The study also offers some advice on skills that a person might want to leave off his or her resume because PayScale considers them “foundational skills,” or ones that can easily be outshined by another more impressive ability. A software developer might want to leave off the ability to work with Delphi, while a web developer may skip listing his or her experience with WordPress or Dreamweaver.

PayScale was founded in 2000 and administers 150,000 real-time salary surveys a month, which it adds to its database of 54 million salary profiles, the company says. It uses internally developed algorithms and methods of comparing its data to other public and private information to standardize and validate its information. New York investment firm Warburg Pincus agreed to pay up to $100 million for a majority stake in the company in 2014.

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Biogen Turns To UPenn Gene Therapy Pioneers in Wide-Ranging Alliance

Mon, 05/16/2016 - 07:55

Even though it recently decided to unload a gene therapy for hemophilia into a yet-to-be-named spin-out company, Biogen, one of biotech’s most risk-taking firms, is doubling down on gene therapy for other diseases. The Cambridge, MA-based company said today it is forming an alliance that could be worth $2 billion with two of the field’s pioneers at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jean Bennett and James Wilson have worked for decades of at UPenn on gene therapy, a method of ferrying genetic instructions into the body to produce what could become a long-lasting treatment for various diseases. Those effects are as yet hypothetical; no gene therapy has been approved in the U.S.

Bennett was one of the first to deliver a gene therapy into the eye, a program which Spark Therapeutics (NASDAQ: ONCE) of Philadelphia, which Bennett helped found, could carry forward to be the first ever gene therapy approval in the U.S. next year.

Wilson (pictured above), meanwhile, the director of UPenn’s gene therapy work, is a central figure in gene therapy’s three-decade-long rollercoaster ride. He co-led the infamous clinical trial that led to the death of teenager Jesse Gelsinger in 1999. He then became a key figure in advancing the gene therapy delivery tool known as an adeno-associated virus, or AAV, which has become a critical part of gene therapy’s renaissance. Wilson’s AAV work led to a company called RegenXBio (NASDAQ: RGNX), which has deals in place with a number of gene therapy players, among them Dimension Therapeutics (NASDAQ: DMTX) and Audentes Therapeutics.

Only now is gene therapy starting to inch towards the market. There are two approved gene therapies, both in Europe: Glybera, from Amsterdam’s UniQure (NASDAQ: QURE), for a rare metabolic disease; Strimvelis, from the British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK), for a rare immune system disorder.

Many questions remain about these treatments, like how long they will last and how much they should cost. Glybera, for instance, was launched with a $1 million price tag, and thus far, for a variety of reasons, as MIT Technology Review reported recently, has only been used on one patient. As Dimension CEO Annalisa Jenkins told Xconomy regarding Glybera earlier this year, the celebration over Glybera’s approval was short lived.

“The success of a therapeutic in a healthcare system is not the day it gets approved,” she said. “It’s the number of patients that it manages to impact and the value that it creates for shareholders.”

In other words, gene therapy is by no means a success yet. It won’t be until many patients on approved gene therapies are free of their disease for years, without complications. Potential treatments continue to advance, and new companies, such as the recent British startup Orchard Therapeutics, continue to launch. GSK won approval of Strimvelis in March. More data continues to accrue from Spark, UniQure, Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE), BioMarin Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: BMRN) and others in diseases like hemophilia, in which a person’s blood doesn’t clot properly and every cut or scratch could be life-threatening without treatment; cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, when an abnormal immune response destroys myelin, the coating of the brain’s neurons; and Sanfilippo syndrome, an inherited metabolic disorder in which the body can’t break down certain types of sugar molecules. As Wilson told Xconomy in 2014: “I tell my wife that my career is starting at 60. That the field of gene therapy is now born. That it’s the beginning, it’s not the end.”

UPenn’s deal with Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) today is the latest example of significant investment in the field. Biogen will fund Wilson and Bennett’s work on seven different preclinical programs. Biogen will pay UPenn $20 million up front, and has committed another … Next Page »

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Internal Threats: 10 Ways to Protect Your Business

Mon, 05/16/2016 - 05:00

The topic of cybercriminals can invoke the image of a scruffy-looking hacker glaring at a computer screen from a mysterious location. But the most serious threats to your business’s information security could be much closer than you think.

A growing number of small and midsize businesses consider internal security breaches—accidental and malicious—from employees a bigger risk than cyberattacks that emanate from the outside, according to the results of our recent survey. The survey of 251 IT decision makers at companies with 250 or fewer employees revealed that:

—38 percent of those businesses have experienced internal IT security incidents in the past year.

—32 percent of those businesses have experienced external IT security incidents in the past year.

—55 percent of the small businesses surveyed are more concerned with internal threats than external threats.

—71 percent of the midsize businesses surveyed are more concerned with internal threats than external threats.

Insider IT security threats come in two flavors: malicious employees who steal data or sabotage IT systems on purpose, and well-meaning insiders who accidentally delete important files, open the wrong e-mail attachments, or fail to install security patches and leave networks open to attack.

The good news is there are practical steps you can take to significantly reduce the risks associated with malicious and unintentional insider security threats. Here are 10 ways to start protecting your business now:

1. Back up your data

No matter how much a business guards against insider threats, bad things can still happen. That’s why a backup and disaster recovery strategy is essential. Invest in a backup service that offers automatic, versioned backup (Carbonite is one such service). Back up your data regularly to on-premises servers as well as to the cloud. And be sure to test the backup system’s restoration capabilities on a regular basis so you know critical data will be accessible when you need it most.

2. Train employees on digital hygiene best practices

Every business gets bombarded with so-called “phishing” e-mails that contain virus-laden attachments and links to malicious websites. These e-mails are sent from outside cybercriminals, but it takes a positive action from a company insider—like clicking a link or opening an attachment—to unleash a world of trouble. Make sure employees are aware of the latest methods being used by cybercriminals. Advise them not to interact with suspicious e-mails and to never open an e-mail attachment unless they’re absolutely certain of where it’s coming from.

3. Test employee awareness with real-life scenarios

One of the best ways to avoid falling victim to cyberattacks is to test them regularly in real-life scenarios. Many IT security vendors offer solutions that allow you to simulate the latest phishing tactics and test your employees’ responses. You will gain insight into common mistakes, and your employees will become accustomed to the latest threats.

4. Limit employee privileges

Another effective way to guard against malicious insiders is to enforce least privilege. That means employees should only have access to the data and applications they need to do their jobs—and nothing more. Just remember that least privilege needs to be managed on an ongoing basis. Access and privileges should be updated whenever an employee gets promoted, transferred, or leaves the company altogether.

5. Create a backup policy at the system administrator level

Install backup software on computers and laptops before they are distributed to employees, and manage them centrally. The backup software should be configured so that only an employee with administrator privileges can make changes to the backup policy associated with the computer. This way, if a disgruntled employee decides to wipe the laptop clean, you’ll still have a backup of all the work that has been completed on that device.

6. Review password management policies

Password crackers, social engineering, and keystroke loggers are just a few of the ways malicious insiders obtain passwords and compromise user accounts. That’s why strong password and account management policies are essential. Passwords should be changed regularly, and they should include upper and lowercase letters in combination with numbers and special characters. But remember, passwords that are difficult for employees to remember often end up written down within arms’ reach of the keyboard. Encourage good memory techniques over sticky notes.

7. Implement strong management policies for privileged users

Highly privileged users, such as systems administrators and other technical personnel, have more opportunities to commit sabotage than most employees. Consider having privileged users sign an agreement that outlines exactly what they’re allowed and not allowed to do when accessing user accounts. It’s also a good idea to use monitoring and audit technologies. Just make sure they comply with privacy laws in your region.

8. Implement strong remote access controls

Malicious insiders often choose to attack organizations remotely. It’s a handy way to commit a crime without being seen by fellow employees. While providing remote network access to employees can increase productivity and efficiency, it’s important to be extremely careful with regard to remote access policies. Providing remote access to e-mail and non-critical data is fine, but consider limiting remote access to your company’s most critical business information and applications. Access should be restricted to the systems and data required to perform essential job responsibilities.

9. Implement a well-defined employee termination policy

There are several steps you can take to reduce the risks posed by employees that have recently quit or been terminated. In addition to revoking physical access to company facilities, close all of their user accounts, including e-mail, network logins, VPN access, cloud services, and on-premises applications. Also remove the employee from e-mail distribution lists and alerts.

10. Be extra cautious about social media

People post all kinds of things on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Social media profiles may include birth dates, likes and dislikes, employment information, and more. Malicious insiders can use information found there to target fellow employees that have unwittingly given clues to sensitive information. Companies should enact clear policies and train employees and business partners on what is an inappropriate use of social media.

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White House Wants to Spend $121M on National Microbiome Initiative

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 16:35

The Obama administration announced this morning a public-private initiative to study the collections of microorganisms that live on or in humans and practically everywhere else on Earth. More than 100 other institutions are joining the administration with funding and resources in what’s being billed as the National Microbiome Initiative.

The microbiome has become a subject of intense research to delve into the complex interplay between humans and the trillions of organisms we host. The research could have profound implications for human health, and a handful of biotech and pharma companies have pushed microbiome-related therapies into clinical trials. The most advanced work is in diseases of the gut, such as bacterial infections and autoimmune conditions. The field has also attracted so-called “citizen science” efforts that ask donors and others to provide microbiome samples for analysis.

The Obama administration has made a priority of high-profile initiatives in areas of cutting edge science and medicine, such as cancer, brain research, Alzheimer’s disease, and precision medicine, counting on a national spotlight to bolster what are relatively modest amounts of proposed funding.

In this case, the White House aims to free up $121 million across the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years for several government agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA, to study microbiome ecosystems in humans and beyond.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced $100 million in funding, as well. Other participants include the University of Michigan, the University of California San Diego, and One Codex, which won a Centers for Disease Control prize last year for its genomic search engine.

Photo of White House by jason goulding via Creative Commons license.

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See the Future of Robotics and A.I. at Robo Madness West, 6/22

Fri, 05/13/2016 - 15:48

Calling all robot lovers: The time is now to book June 22 on your calendar. That’s the day of Robo Madness West, a celebration of (and critical look at) the exploding fields of robotics and artificial intelligence among startups and big companies alike.

Our fifth annual Bay Area robotics event is being held in partnership with the 2016 Sensors Expo & Conference at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA. We are convening an all-star lineup of CEOs, founders, and top executives from companies such as iRobot, PARC, Savioke, Simbe Robotics, Jibo, Lemnos Labs, Eyeris, PreNav, and Fetch Robotics.

The key themes this year are robot design across different industries (including logistics, retail, and home); human-machine interaction and collaboration; drone navigation and mapping; machine learning and artificial intelligence; and more.

We have quite a program in store—everything from solo talks and robot demos to fireside chats and panel discussions on topics that are most compelling to our audience of tech and business leaders, entrepreneurs, investors, marketers, and anyone interested in the future of robotics and A.I.

To get a sense of the event, you can check out photos and takeaways from our recent sister event in Boston, as well as last year’s Robo Madness West.

We’ll have more details on the afternoon agenda soon. Meantime, today (Friday) is the last day to grab our early bird ticket special. Hope you can help spread the word and join us in San Jose on June 22.

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Digital Health Startups Racing to 5G Wireless Rendezvous

Thu, 05/12/2016 - 14:04

It’s hard to define fifth-generation mobile technology, when 5G is not officially expected to launch until 2020. Few people nowadays can describe what the next-generation wireless networks are going to look like.

In the meantime, the digital health sector is racing to connect with a wireless infrastructure that has yet to be revealed.

According to the people who gathered Wednesday at UC San Diego for a 5G Connected Health Workshop, though, 5G technology will bring increased bandwidth and faster data rates, lead to significantly decreased latency, and provide coverage for lots and lots of devices.

The event, organized by UCSD’s Center for Wireless Communications, brought scientists and industry experts together to help lay out the 5G technology roadmap for digital health. “The goal is to collectively figure out where the gaps are,” said Dimitri Arges, a conference organizer.

According to venture fund Rock Health, investments in digital health startups hit a record $4.5 billon last year, with 267 companies raising $2 million or more. Nearly a quarter of these “connected health” deals involved healthcare consumer engagement and personal health tools, reflecting a growing investment focus on technologies and services that enable consumers to access health information, track their health data, and help consumers understand what their data means and how it can impact their care. This record funding pace has continued into 2016, with $981.3 million invested through the first three months of the year.

In an overview of digital health investment activity, Donna Fedor of Palo Alto, CA-based Mavericks Capital—not to be confused with Maverick Capital, the hedge fund based in Dallas and New York—said the next generation of digital health is about integrating platforms, data, and the Internet of (medical) Things. Patients may have access to their lab results, but they don’t know what the data means.

“It’s not just about the data,” said Fedor. “It’s not about what the data says. It’s the ‘why.’ It’s the context of what the data says.”

In other highlights from the workshop:

—Out of all of the digital health deals that Rock Health counted in 2015, a majority were seed and Series A deals. But Series C and later stage deals accounted for 23 percent of the dollars invested. Of the 348 investors that Rock Health counted in digital health deals, only 62 invested in two or more deals. According to Fedor, there is a scarcity of institutional investors focused on early stage deals in digital health.

—M&A activity in digital health remains high. Rock Health counted 187 buyouts in 2015, with a total of $6 billion in deals that were disclosed. The number of deals was almost double the volume in 2014. “Some companies don’t even move to B Round financings. They just get acquired,” Fedor said.

—IPOs remain a viable option. Five companies went public in 2015, raising $1.4 billion and creating $8 billion in market capitalization. There were no digital health IPOs in the first quarter of 2016.

—Technologies that enable consumer engagement are changing the way healthcare is delivered, but strategic investors remain focused on chronic care management. Healthcare systems remain focused on chronic patient care because of payer reimbursements.

—According to Fedor, about 60 percent of all employers in the U.S. are now self-insured, which provides employers more flexibility in terms of experimenting with innovative digital health technologies.

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Danny Hillis on Boston vs. CA, Last Days With Minsky, and His New Co

Wed, 05/11/2016 - 11:58

Danny Hillis co-founded the famous parallel computing company Thinking Machines in 1983, while doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky. The company boasted one of the great corporate slogans of all time: “We’re building a machine that will be proud of us.”

Thinking Machines might not have worked out (its journey from high-flying star to bankruptcy is another story), but it marked a new era in computing and Hillis himself was established as a computing legend. In 1996, Hillis left for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. Later, he co-founded engineering and design company Applied Minds and several startups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, Metaweb Technologies (acquired by Google) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and his current passion, Applied Invention, which “partners with clients to create innovative products and services.”

But to bring things quickly up to the present day, here is a message for Boston innovators: you have built a culture Danny Hillis is proud of.

Hillis moved back to Cambridge, MA, last year after nearly two decades in California. He had personal and professional reasons for moving back east. But he was growing tired of what he describes as the overly money-fixated motivations in Silicon Valley in particular, and California more generally. He says one of the greatest assets of the Boston innovation culture is that people think of big problems to solve first and foremost—with making money a secondary motivation.

Hillis will be speaking next week at our Napa Summit (if you’d like a last minute invitation—write to I caught up with him at a reception Xconomy held recently in Cambridge, and followed up with a phone call. His sentiment about Boston’s innovation culture really jumped out at me—in large part because I have long been tired of the laments of many here that Boston’s innovators should be more like their Cali counterparts. But it wasn’t the only interesting thing Hillis had to say about moving to Boston. He talked about opening East Coast digs for Applied Invention, and also about spending some last, wonderful time with Minsky, who passed away this January.

Following are a few take-homes from our conversation:

On the cultural differences between Boston and California

“I spent my childhood moving all over the world,” he says, referring to life with his father, an epidemiologist, who moved his family around Africa and also to India. Hillis came to Boston as an MIT student in 1974 “and liked it,” he relates. “I was introduced to the world of ideas and people changing the world.”

When he moved to California to work for Disney, he at once experienced differences in the tech culture—especially when it came to finding uses for the still-nascent Internet. “The underlying technology was mostly an East Coast invention, but the application of the Internet was mostly a West Coast thing,” he says. “One of the things that happened was that because so many people made money so quickly, the West Coast began to attract people kind of like the gold rush–people who were attracted to the idea of making money.” In short, there was a shift of sorts: The people who originally started building applications for the Internet in California wanted to change the world, he said. “Then they attracted a second kind of person, who I think saw this as an opportunity to get rich quickly.”

Hillis continued, “That slants the whole conversation of even the technical people. If you sit in a restaurant, at every table you hear people talking about their mezzanine financing, their strategy, their seed investment—it’s all about the financial side of things. Whereas you sit in a restaurant in Cambridge, you hear people talking about CRISPR (new gene-editing technology), and gene drive and deep learning methods. It’s about the idea.”

And that cultural difference, which he had seen first hand during visits to Boston, figured prominently into his decision to move back. Hillis stresses … Next Page »

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MGH Goes Epic: What I Learned in the Trenches

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 09:45

On April 2 at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the green charts went away. Every morning around 6:30 am since starting residency, my co-interns and I had frantically scrambled around the halls searching for these plastic binders, which contained the sole record of our patients’ vital signs. It was a ritual that blended equal parts anxiety, frustration, and disbelief that “Man’s Greatest Hospital” still had not managed to bring vital signs into the digital age.

That all changed when the old electronic medical record (EMR) system was shut off and Epic—the juggernaut EMR that cost MGH’s parent company, Partners Healthcare, over $1 billion—was turned on. Suddenly, vital signs were available with a single click.

The addition of vital signs into the EMR was an unequivocal improvement. Residents celebrated with a video dramatizing the longed-for demise of the green chart, followed by a ceremonial burial. A few of the old guard stood around, bewildered, like shell-shocked soldiers at the end of a war, unsure what to do now that the enemy was finally gone.

I have been surprised by how easy the transition to Epic has been. In the first few days, resident and nurse work areas were flooded with “super users” to answer our questions. The super user on my floor was an intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He had already used Epic for most of a year and knew the answers to all my questions. Now, a month into Epic, I feel not only comfortable with most tasks but find that the program saves me time.

That said, as with any major software launch, there have been some challenges. I’ve learned a few lessons over the past five weeks of combat with a new EMR. Here are three key lessons.

The first lesson is that simplicity is a virtue. After seeing vital signs projected onto my computer screen for the first time, the next thing I noticed was that there are about seven different ways to access the vital signs in Epic, and each way provides slightly different information. The same goes for laboratory and imaging results, notes, medication records, and orders. There are overviews and detail views, lists, tables, and charts, and physician views and nurse views. A co-resident and I can be looking at the same patient’s results and see very different things.

Some of this complexity is an inherent feature of Epic, but part of it was our own creation. Partners negotiated for a great degree of customization in its Epic build. This has resulted in added bells and whistles. Some of these features may be helpful, but many features turned out to be problematic. Partners is now working to scale back some of that customization to simplify the system.

Lesson two is that an EMR should be flexible. Epic often requires hard-coded responses and forces users into standardized pathways. This can be a useful safety measure to prevent errors and ensures adherence to protocol. Hard-coded responses also allow administrators to collect and track practice patterns with much more clarity, permitting more focused interventions to improve quality of care.

However, this approach falls apart when a situation is atypical, requiring an atypical management approach. Several times, I have been forced to order something a standard way when I really wanted to make a customization that would have been better for the patient. We need to recognize that not every situation is typical and there should be a way to work outside standard operating procedure.

The third lesson is that frontline providers need an ongoing voice in EMR design. A few features of the Partners version of Epic clearly reflect gaps in understanding of clinical practice. Some orders have defaults that would be funny if not so dangerous (e.g., it’s easier to order twelve days of intravenous fluids than twelve hours’ worth). Other orders flash nonsensical warnings, requiring several clicks to dismiss. These warnings slow down my workflow and desensitize me to serious alarms about potentially dangerous interactions or allergies. Impractical features like these have already attracted the attention of MGH administrators, who are seeking out the perspective of residents and other providers to guide improvements.

This approach is key: while glitches and obstacles are inevitable in an EMR rollout of this size, MGH is taking the right step in gathering the voices of users to make improvements based on practical experience.

The Epic rollout at MGH has gone well. For other EMR launches, leaders should prioritize simplicity, flexibility, and listening to the voices of frontline users.

Alex Harding is a resident physician in the primary care track of Internal Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. He played a minor role in preparing for the Epic rollout at MGH. He has no financial interests to disclose. Follow @alexharding7

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Across The Board: Ideas To Narrow Biotech’s Gender Gap

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 07:30

The evidence is piling up. Companies with more women in charge are better businesses. So why are so many biotechs still led mainly by men?

Saira Ramasastry, a former Merrill Lynch analyst, is now a Bay Area consultant on the boards of three biotechs, including Sangamo Biosciences (NASDAQ: SGMO). Having benefited from female mentors such as Harvard University professor Vicki Sato and longtime Shire executive Gwen Melincoff, Ramasastry says, “I feel there’s been progress, but biotech absolutely has a gender gap.”

Writ large, the gender gap could amount to an economic anchor weighing down global productivity, as the McKinsey Global Institute reported last year. Then in February, The Peterson Institute for International Economics published a global study, funded by EY, which counted nearly 22,000 companies across industries and across the world. Those with 30 percent or more female leaders showed an average 6 percent higher net profit margin. The Peterson study has its caveats, but it builds upon momentum from an earlier study by the bank Credit Suisse that surveyed a smaller pool of companies and came to a similar conclusion: Gender diversity at the top of the org chart is good for the bottom line.

Some people in biotech, and some companies, get it. But the numbers show there’s a long road ahead before women, who are half the workforce, have a similar presence in the upper ranks. A 2014 report from U.K. executive recruitment firm Liftstream is often cited as the most comprehensive study of gender diversity for public life sciences companies. Liftstream surveyed nearly 1,500 public companies in the U.S. and Europe and found that more than half of boardrooms were all male (52 percent in the U.S., 60 percent in Europe). The percentage of women directors and top managers varied depending on the size of the company, but not by much. At small-to-midsized U.S. companies, just 9.7 percent of directors and 20.9 percent of leaders were women; at big companies the number of female directors went up slightly, to 19.2 percent, but leadership numbers came down to 13.9 percent.

Liftstream also surveyed life science venture capital firms. A dismal 9.6 percent of partners were women in traditional VC firms, but the rate nearly doubled for corporate venture groups, such as those at Pfizer and Roche—both of which are run by women. VC numbers are important because for new biotech companies, the VCs, who get director seats as part of their deal terms, make up a big part of the board.

Last year, Liftstream followed up with a survey on private biotechs that noted all companies raising cash in a six-month period across 2014 and 2015. Of those companies, 51 percent had an all-male board, and just 17 percent of the executives they appointed during that time were women, with a range from 32 percent for VPs to 15 percent for board members.

One might hope that Liftstream’s eye-opening reports, plus this one in Nature Biotechnology, plus the backlash against New York investor relations firm LifeSci Advisors’ now-notorious staffed-by-models J.P. Morgan party in January, could be moving the needle in a positive direction.

I asked Liftstream CEO Karl Simpson if he’s seeing more interest in recruiting female candidates. “It’s more what I would call consciousness and awareness,” Simpson said. “There are more discussions now with boards about gender diversity,” but if there is an uptick, “it’s too small to call a trend.”

Discussions are nice, but many in the industry are looking for solutions. Xconomy is hosting a series of dinners—the first was in April in San Francisco—bringing together women in biotech, and a few men as well, to hear what works, and what doesn’t, in bridging the gender gap. What I learned during last month’s dinner and subsequent conversations with folks from around the industry fell into three main themes.

Boardrooms and C-Suites: If change from the top is going to happen, recruitment practices need to change. There are barriers. In startups, there’s the aforementioned VC problem. And when time comes to find outside directors or C-level executives, tiny companies going a million miles a minute can’t afford to hire a recruiter, so they dip into personal networks and feel pressure to move fast.

“If we keep looking for the been-there-done-that CEO, or the veteran board member that we’ve served with before, or calling our same network on references, then we’ll likely be recycling the same list of men,” says Nina Kjellson, a general partner at Canaan Partners who co-hosts an annual “Women in Venture” dinner at J.P. Morgan every year.  “What about the woman at the VP level? The female exec from another industry? The academic or not-for-profit leader? Until more women get the chance to rise to the ranks and build the experience, we won’t have them in the pool for searches.”

Liftstream found that of the women in biotech C-suites they surveyed, only 16 percent had been contacted for non-executive board positions, compared to nearly 60 percent of their male counterparts.

Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB) has taken an unusual approach to the problem: Increase the supply. In early 2015 it began a training program for women in its … Next Page »

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As Costs Soar in Silicon Valley, San Diego Looks for Startup Gains

Tue, 05/10/2016 - 04:40

Venture capital continues to gush into Silicon Valley, but is the Bay Area’s decades-long startup boom sustainable? Talk in the valley has turned increasingly gloomy amid signs that its phenomenal tech boom—like Moore’s law itself—is bumping against its upper limits.

One perspective in this conversation comes from Redpoint Ventures partner Tomasz Tunguz. In a post last year on The Rising Costs of Scaling a Startup, Tunguz cited data showing that office prices in downtown San Francisco almost doubled over five years—from $36 per square foot in 2009 to $63 a square foot in 2014.

Tunguz was focused on the region’s priciest submarket, where the average asking price for office space is now over $72 a square foot. But the affordability and availability of commercial office space has been rising throughout the Bay Area—and it is increasingly a limiting factor for tech startups.

The disparity becomes most apparent in a comparison with office lease rates in premium submarkets elsewhere in California, according to Michael Combs, a CBRE research manager in San Diego. For the most expensive (Class A) office space, Combs says the most-recent data shows that San Diego’s real estate lease rates are half the cost of those in downtown San Francisco or SoMa.

Regional Market Data (credit: CBRE Research)

Submarket Data (credit: CBRE Research)

In his blog, Tunguz also estimated that payroll costs for a San Francisco technology worker roughly doubled between 2009 and 2014, from $90,000 a year—including salary, benefits, stock options, and perks—to well over $180,000.

Some might quibble with his analysis. For example, Kibin co-founder and CEO Travis Biziorek has argued that over-inflated startup valuations are a far bigger factor than payroll costs in the skyrocketing cost of growing a startup in Silicon Valley. (Biziorek writes that he doesn’t disagree that the cost of running a Silicon Valley startup has doubled.)

Tech Professional Salaries by Market

But Tunguz was preaching to the choir in Silicon Valley, where the soaring cost of living has precipitated an exodus that has been underway for at least the past year. A recent poll released by the Bay Area Council found that over one third of the residents in Santa Clara, San Mateo, and San Francisco counties now say they are ready to leave, due chiefly to high housing costs and intractable traffic.

So if the bloom is off the rose in Silicon Valley, what does that mean for startups in next-tier tech hubs like San Diego, Seattle, and Austin, TX?

At the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., economic development manager Jesse Gipe writes in an e-mail, “It has become more and more apparent that the high cost of living and limited supply of real estate are becoming real challenges for companies in the Bay Area.

“Silicon Valley has been the epicenter for much of the tech ecosystem, but as companies look to reduce costs and retain high-quality talent, this is creating opportunities for other areas: San Diego is an attractive market for growth. Recently, we’ve seen this with companies like Wrike, Bizness Apps, and Experian expanding and relocating to San Diego.”

Mike Krenn, president of the San Diego Venture Group, agreed, saying he now sees a good opportunity to recruit engineers and other high-value employees to San Diego. And Krenn is not alone.

“There is no shortage of really interesting people from really good companies who are willing to move to San Diego—and that is significantly different that it was five years ago,” said Mark Lonergan, founder of the executive recruiting firm Lonergan Partners in Redwood City, CA. “San Diego is primed to become massive as a haven for venture capital.

“We have the same issues in Seattle and Austin,” Lonergan added. “There’s no reason why all three regions couldn’t be as big as Silicon Valley.”

Nevertheless, Krenn still voiced some frustrations with the Silicon Valley mindset.

“When I talk to VCs in Silicon Valley, they say they’re sick of the high valuations, and sick of engineers jumping around from job to job,” Krenn said. “So I ask them if that means they’re going to start hunting deals here, and they say, ‘No. I’ve still got plenty of deal flow.’”

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How a Mobile Device Can Reduce Distracted Driving

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 12:28

Distracted driving is a major problem. In 2014, more than 30,000 people were killed and more than 430,000 injured in car crashes involving distracted drivers. Ironically, it may just be that the root of the problem – a smartphone – could actually be the solution.

People know they shouldn’t, but they do.
In a survey conducted by AT&T, 49 percent of drivers admitted they text and drive, even though 98 percent of them know it’s a bad idea. And the actual number may be higher, as most studies rely on self-reporting, in which respondents are more likely to downplay their own distracted driving tendencies. In fact, at any given moment, 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Distracted driving stats are much higher than previously reported.
The truth behind distracted driving is shocking. Examining smartphone data collected from thousands of trips made by drivers using our smartphone-based app that tracks distracted driving, we found that the numbers of distracted drivers are in fact much higher than previously reported. About 85 percent of the drivers used the phone while driving, more than twice the self-reported 42.3 percent statistic in a AAA study. In addition, we found that drivers texted or used an app 16 percent of the time during their commute, which equates to about 20 million hours of distracted driving per day.

Accidents from distracted driving not only take a human toll, but also an economic one. Earlier this year, Warren Buffett told CNBC that profit at Geico was down $460 million from 2014’s $1.6 billion. What was behind the drop in profits? Increased losses from accidents stemming from distracted driving. Buffett has forecasted an increase in insurance premiums for consumers in the coming years. But that may not be enough to reduce instances of distracted driving. Why?

We all think we are great drivers and accidents are things that happen to other people. Reading Jane’s text wasn’t really distracted driving, I just needed to confirm where we are meeting for lunch. I’m just checking the map on my phone. I’m just trying to find a song I like. These activities seem harmless, but they are all distracted driving behaviors, and we do them all the time.

In fact, we convince ourselves that there are times when it’s safer to divert our focus. One of the other insights we gleaned from data is that phone use increases as people slow down to stop at a light or approach an intersection. Phone use jumps to 25 percent at slower speeds, and goes as high as 31 percent when at a complete stop. Makes sense – we think phone use is less risky if we’re going slowly. But, there is a problem with this: the high frequency of pedestrians at stoplights (who themselves are increasingly distracted – New Jersey is actually proposing a bill to stop distracted walking) increases the potential for harm.

The Answer is in Awareness
How can we become better drivers if we believe we’re already great at it? And even worse, great at multitasking! Well, turns out that the very same device that causes us to be distracted can also help us become better drivers (without ever engaging with it).

Through the use of smartphone-based apps that track, analyze, and report driver behavior, drivers can for the first time get an accurate assessment of their driving behavior and how to reduce preventable risk. In much the same way that wearable fitness trackers give consumers accurate information about their health, smartphone-based apps give drivers accurate information about their behavior behind the wheel.

April was distracted driving month: there is no better time to inspire self-awareness. The data we have collected thus far has shed a chilling light on the reality of how insidious distracted driving is and how little that pervasiveness is acknowledged by those who engage in it.

This is the perfect time for all of us to challenge ourselves to become safer drivers. Did you check that text from Jane? Did you call Mark on your way home from work? The solution is simple – leave the phone in your bag, briefcase, or backpack, out of sight – and out of mind. #justdrive

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West Coast Biotech Roundup: Acadia, Medivation, Verily, and More

Fri, 05/06/2016 - 09:40

Just a few weeks ago, the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker committed $250 million of his Napster and Facebook fortune to a massive effort to accelerate ways to boost the body’s own immune system against cancer. Now he’s turning his attention to a different kind of biotech initiative, which you might describe as legalizing the cannabinoid receptor agonist.

Parker is spearheading a California ballot measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and donated $500,000 of his own money to the effort in January. Supporters announced at a campaign kickoff in San Francisco Wednesday that they have collected 600,000 signatures to get the measure, officially known as the “Adult Use of Marijuana Act,” on the Nov. 8 ballot. That’s far more than the 365,000 certified signatures the state requires such measures to qualify for the ballot.

On another front, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Wednesday to enact new regulations on tobacco that will tighten the use of e-cigarettes and make California the second state (after Hawaii) to raise the legal age for smoking cigarettes to 21.

In other life sciences news, here’s our rundown from the West Coast:

—Shares of Acadia Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ACAD) slumped to $27.04 in after-hours trading Thursday, after the San Diego biotech reported a wider-than-expected loss of 45 cents per share in the first quarter of 2016. Analysts had estimated Acadia’s loss would be 42 cents a share. Acadia’s stock was already slipping from its recent peak of $33 a share, which came after the FDA said it had approved Acadia’s drug pimavanserin (Nuplazid) for treating Parkinson’s related psychosis. The drug is the first medicine the FDA has approved for quieting the hallucinations and delusions that patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease often experience. The process for approving pimavanserin was delayed for more than a year, though, when Acadia stumbled in its planned submission of a new drug application.

—The buyout speculation surrounding San Francisco’s Medivation (NASDAQ: MDVN) continued this week, with Pfizer, Sanofi, and Amgen all rumored to be interested in the tiny company and its big prostate cancer drug enzalutamide (Xtandi). In a conference call Thursday, Medivation CEO David Hung said the company again rejected Sanofi’s unsolicited $9.3 billion takeover offer as too low and “highly opportunistic.” AstraZeneca and Novartis AG also are reportedly interested in acquiring Medivation.

The San Francisco Business Times analyzed the recent spate of hiring at Verily, formerly known as Google Life Sciences. In the first four months of the year, the secretive Alphabet spinout has hired at least 45 people with a wide range of skills, including software, hardware, and sensor development. The list includes Abbott’s John Hernandez, who is now leading health economics at Verily, and Jason Hipp, a former executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb (NYSE: BMY) who is now heading pathology.

—In gene therapy news, Audentes Therapeutics of San Francisco announced a collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania to develop a treatment for a rare liver disease called Crigler-Najjar Syndrome. The collaborators will use modified viruses called AAV8, licensed from RegenxBio, to get the therapy into the patients’ cells. The company expects data from its first human trial next year.

—Another genetic medicine program using AAV was unveiled by Homology Medicines Monday. Homology is based near Boston, but it has licensed a type of AAV from City of Hope Medical Center in Los Angeles to develop therapies that replace faulty genes with healthy ones. Xconomy’s Ben Fidler explained the subtle but important differences between the work Homology will pursue and other forms of gene editing.

—Seattle’s Kineta Therapeutics will tap up to $7.2 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust to develop a treatment for Lassa fever. The cash should take the program through Phase 1 trials, according to Kineta. It has not yet reached the clinic.

Fierce Biotech reported that former Flexus executives, who sold their company to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2015 for $800 million upfront, have formed a new startup called Ideaya Biosciences with $46 million pledged by 5am Ventures, Celgene, Novartis, and other backers. Ideaya, based in South San Francisco and San Diego, marks the third spinout related to Flexus, which was built with the idea of more companies in mind. The company said it is focused on developing new ways for treating cancer that target DNA damage and repair pathways, as well as new cancer immunotherapies.

Graybug Vision of Redwood City, CA, raised $44.5 million in a Series B round to push its wet age-related macular degeneration drug through Phase 2 trials. Deerfield Management led the round.

—Tocagen, a San Diego biotech developing a gene therapy treatment for a type of brain cancer known as recurrent high grade Glioma, reported encouraging clinical data earlier this week at American Association of Neurological Surgeons Annual Scientific Meeting in Chicago. A study of Tocagen’s intravenously delivered retrovirus, vocimagene amiretrovepvec (Toca 511) in combination with extended-release flucytosine (Toca FC) improved the probability of survival at 12 months to over 61 percent. In a statement, Tocagen CEO Harry Gruber said the data “support additional investigation in patients with primary brain cancer and metastatic cancers.’

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More than a Matter of Appearances: Pharma’s Existential PR Problem

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 06:40

When President Obama forced Pfizer to scrap its proposed $160 billion merger with Allergan, the industry as well as the company emerged as losers in the eyes of the public, despite Pfizer’s credible and constructive position.  As Pfizer CEO Ian Read explained in a recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal:

Pfizer has long worked with Congress to make the U.S. tax system more competitive and fair. In the absence of tax reform, we undertook a proposed merger with Allergan PLC in good faith and after intense study and review of current laws. This strategic transaction, driven by strong commercial and industrial logic, would have made it easier to invest in the U.S. (emphasis mine.)

In his blog Matt Herper, a thoughtful observer of the industry, headlined the PfizerGan transaction as “Pharma’s Tax Dodge” and quoted the president saying for American corporations “to continue to benefit from that entire architecture [of the American economy] that helps you thrive, but move your technical address simply to avoid paying taxes, is neither fair, nor is it something that’s going to be good for the country over the long term.”

Bad enough that we are ruthless profiteers denying life-saving drugs to desperate patients.  Now we are tax cheats to boot.

This is more than a matter of appearances.  A tarnished reputation can have real consequences.  Pharma’s lowly standing has made it fair game in the political arena. If the politicians were to actually follow-up on their threats to reign-in the perceived abuses, the results could be catastrophic.

In fact, both Herper and the president are wrong.

The U.S. tax code is one of the few that requires domestic companies to pay a 35 percent tax, net of local taxes, on world-wide income. Since the companies are allowed to accumulate dollars overseas if they plan to deploy the money there, they legally pay no U.S taxes until they bring it home. Our foreign competitors, however, are not required to pay these taxes if they invest in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that this places US companies at a competitive disadvantage, discourages investment at home and should be changed.  But to Reed’s earlier point, it hasn’t been changed and it isn’t going to be any time soon.

So Pfizer’s proposed merger was not a tax dodge. The company was never going to bring back its foreign profits, because it simply makes no sense to pay $.35 tax penalty for every $1 of overseas earnings invested in the U.S.  As Read explained, the purpose of the merger was to enable Pfizer to invest those dollars in the U.S. to build jobs and industry here, rather than letting it sit in banks overseas.

Mainstream pharma are no more profiteers or tax cheats than any other business, and yet the industry continues to stagger from one public relations disaster to another. Many thoughtful observers already question the industry’s economic viability.  Despite the generous markets pharma enjoys in the US, neither the multi-nationals nor the bio-venture community have demonstrated that they can profitably discover new drugs.  While we may not like to face that reality, it is the life-or-death reason why Pfizer and other firms have had to resort to growth by acquisition, and will have to go on eating and being eaten, despite the regulations.

With proposals like cost-plus pricing, government-negotiated prices, and the proposed expansion of single-payer health-care, it would not take much to shift the risk-reward balance to the point at which pharmaceuticals sink back into the generic industrial landscape.  A sudden collapse might result in a crisis that could stir pharma supporters to action.  More likely—and more insidious—the government would make small changes, creating regulations and market controls that slowly erode incentives and sap the industry’s vitality.  The result: The further flattening of Pharma’s productivity curve—fewer new molecules, fewer blockbusters, fewer therapies. No one will notice the absence of drugs that didn’t happen.

In a recent blog post Bernard Munos drew a distinction between pharma CEOs as transformers and builders and observed that the industry needed the bold vision of the former but had an oversupply of the latter.  In a similar blog, Christopher Bowe also called for new leadership—the likes of an Elon Musk or a Steve Jobs.  Nowhere is that deficiency in leadership more apparent than in … Next Page »

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Xconomy Launches Robotics and A.I. Channel

Wed, 05/04/2016 - 13:30

At the end of March, Xconomy held a jam-packed event called Robo Madness: The A.I. Explosion. If you were among the roughly 250 people who descended on the Googleplex in the heart of Cambridge’s Kendall Square for the event, you may have heard me note that robotics and artificial intelligence were clearly growing in importance in this age of consumer bots, drones, healthcare robotics, A.I. software, and more. Reflecting that trend, I said that Xconomy would soon be announcing a new way to follow our rapidly expanding national coverage of these important subjects.

I am pleased to announce that today is that day. Our national Robotics and A.I. channel is officially live, featuring all articles about robotics, artificial intelligence, and related topics from across our 11-market network. It is our eighth such national channel, joining Startups; Fintech; Health IT, Cleantech; Exome (life sciences); Xperience (consumer tech); and Cybersecurity, which we announced only last month.

We’d like to thank the launch sponsors/underwriters who have joined us to support this new channel: the law firm Mintz Levin and contract manufacturing company Cirtronics.

Xconomy’s editors around the country have been writing about robotics and A.I. for years now—and our original robotics event, now called Robo Madness West, is in its fifth year, set for June 22 in San Jose. Two years ago, we brought Robo Madness to Boston, where it has been a sellout each spring. And today, with our channel launch, we are taking our coverage of the field one step farther.

Today, for example, we have two interesting stories on human-machine collaboration for business. In Boston, a startup led by veterans of travel company Kayak is trying to help people resolve customer-service issues with a combination of human workers and A.I. software. And in Seattle, a startup called Textio is using machine learning and natural language processing to improve job listings and recruiting e-mails for big companies like Starbucks and Microsoft.

This week, we also have stories on a radar system for drones, and Toyota’s new $1 billion autonomous-vehicle research hub in Ann Arbor, MI.

With the launch of this channel, we make it easy for readers interested in robotics and A.I. to find all articles on these subjects from around our network. All you have to do is go to the home page of the new channel, or sign up for a dedicated e-mail newsletter.

We hope you enjoy this new way of following this important subject—and we hope to see you in San Jose on June 22.

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Down to Wire on Napa Summit—Get Your Invite to Our May 16-17 Event

Wed, 05/04/2016 - 13:16

It’s getting close to the last call for Xconomy’s invitation-only Napa Summit. We have a star-studded lineup. But there are only a few tickets and hotel rooms left, and the May 16-17 event is coming up fast. So request your invitation right away if you’d like to join us.

It all starts with a dinner at Silver Oak on the evening of Monday, May 16, where Xconomy’s founder, Bob Buderi, will be conducting a chat with Facebook’s Mary Lou Jepsen. The main event itself takes place the next morning at the nearby Villagio Inn and Spa.

In addition to Jepsen, this year’s speakers include noted tech investor Esther Dyson; John Maeda of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers; computing guru Danny Hills; John Callaghan of True Ventures, outgoing chair of the National Venture Capital Association; Rachel Horowitz of gene-editing startup Caribou Biosciences; Harry Shum, who heads worldwide research for Microsoft; and Chris Lewicki, CEO of Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company backed in part by Larry Page. And those are just a few of our speakers. We also have sessions covering the transformation of medicine with Watson Health, virtual reality, the artificial intelligence, and the future of food, among other topics.

Guests will even be able to ride in a 3D printed car, courtesy of Kevin Czinger, a former Webvan executive whose new startup, Divergent 3D, makes the vehicle, called the Blade.

You can find the full agenda here. But you must be invited to attend this event, so request your invitation right away by writing to and telling us a little bit about yourself.

Registration is $1,595, which covers the dinner at Silver Oak, and breakfast, lunch, and reception at the Villagio Inn and Spa—and we are offering discounts for startups and government/non-profits (lodging and travel are separate).

And this year, if time and budget are limited, you can get a Tuesday Only registration for just $995, and for this, too, we have discounts for startups and government/non-profits.

More details can be found on our event site. Once again, request your invitation by writing to

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